Sad to say, we keep killing each other. New FBI statistics show that, even though we practiced widespread isolation during the pandemic, the nation’s murder rate grew last year at the fastest rate ever — up 29.4%. There are fewer homicides now than during the peak years of the early ’90s, but not since the federal government began keeping track in the ’60s has the annual jump in homicides been as big as it was in 2020.
The Washington Post’s news alert on the bureau’s announcement carried the headline: “U.S. killings soared nearly 30 percent in 2020, FBI data shows, with more slayings caused by guns.”
To my mind, murders don’t occur because of a gun, a knife, a bow and arrow or any other weapon you can think of. Murders happen because someone decides to carry out a fatal attack on another. Yes, guns are frequently the weapon of choice, but it is the offending human being who causes the death.
This may seem like a language nitpick, but to someone who writes for a living, words matter.
The media’s shift away from using terms associated with crime disturbs me. Columnist Nicole Gelinas wrote about this recently, pointing out that The New York Times routinely refers to killings caused by “stray bullets.” Murders are reported as being committed because of “botched robberies.”
“As violent crime has soared, such language has become ubiquitous in news stories,” Gelinas wrote. “It is lazily inaccurate — and absolves killers of responsibility.”
Several media outlets follow this word-bending trend, blaming the soaring murder rate on inanimate objects (stray bullets) or on criminals who meant to commit some other, lesser crime like a robbery.
Why would a journalist fail to highlight the human causation of a murder? Did they just not bother to ask police about whether the suspect was an ex-spouse, an angry next-door neighbor or a random stranger? Or is it because so many murders occur in gang-infested inner cities, such as Chicago, New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles, and news outlets shy away from mentioning the gang connection for fear of being called “racist?” After all, they would argue, when you read about a murder committed by a suspected gangbanger, your first thought is not someone who is white.
That’s probably true, but this squishy manipulation of language makes it seem as if reporters are deliberately leaving out pertinent facts so as not to be branded bigots, when their job is to present all the details they can dig up. The truth sometimes hurts, but it is still the truth.
Here are some uncomfortable facts:
• There are some 33,000 violent street gangs in the U.S., mostly headed by white, Black, Hispanic and Asian people.
• Gang territory wars often result in random shootouts, which injure and kill thousands of every year, including children.
• There is more police presence in minority neighborhoods because those areas have the highest crime rates.
• Cross-racial killings are rare. Black people most often take the lives of other Black people. White people most often murder other white people.
The media’s worry about its image and failure to use accurate language does a service to no one. Certainly not to the inner-city mother trying to keep her children safe; not to legitimate gun owners who keep their firearms locked away; and not to law enforcement who are keenly aware of local crime hot spots and want support to bring criminals to justice.
There is so much written about gun violence being at the core of this nation’s violent crime problem. The fact is, an overwhelming majority of the 425 million civilian-owned firearms are never used in the commission of a crime. It is the relatively low percentage of criminals who are at the center of the homicide problem. So why isn’t the focus on getting them off the street?